Suchika Nagpal,
Amity Law School, Delhi

Introduction:

Under the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 (hereinafter referred as “Act”), as enacted originally, cruelty was one of the grounds for obtaining judicial separation but not divorce. Although the word cruelty was not defined under the Act, but the section was restrictive in nature wherein the aggrieved party to approach the court had to establish that the other party treated the Petitioner with such cruelty that it caused a reasonable apprehension in the mind of the Petitioner that it will be harmful or injurious for the Petitioner to live with the other party.[1] Subsequently, in the year 1976, The Marriage Laws (Amendment) Act amended Section 13 of the Act and inserted cruelty as a ground for divorce. The ground of cruelty for divorce after amendment under Section 13(1)(ia) stood as under:

“Section 13 – (1) Any marriage solemnized, whether before or after the commencement of this Act, may, on a petition presented by either the husband or the wife, be dissolved by a decree of divorce on the ground that the other party—

(i) ………………..

(ia) has, after the solemnization of the marriage, treated the petitioner with cruelty;” 

Inability to Do Household Work – Ground For Seeking Divorce

The legislature after amendment, widened the scope of this section and left it for the courts to determine on the basis of the facts and circumstances of each case that whether an act amounts to cruelty or not. Cruelty contemplated under this section may be physical or mental. While determining physical cruelty won’t be difficult for the court since it is a question of fact and degree, however, determining mental cruelty may pose a problem in such a wide ambit of the section.

Scope of Mental Cruelty:

The Hon’ble Supreme Court in V. Bhagat vs. Mrs. D. Bhagat defined mental cruelty under Section 13(1)(ia) as that conduct which inflicts upon the other party such mental pain and suffering as would make it not possible for that party to live with the other. In other words, mental cruelty must be of such a nature that the parties cannot reasonably be expected to live together.[2] Therefore, the concept of mental cruelty cannot remain static and differs from person to person. What would amount to cruelty in one case may not amount to cruelty in another case. It is bound to change with the passage of time, impact of modern culture through print and electronic media and value system etc.[3]

It is pertinent to note that the definition provided in this case is not exhaustive. Thus, it is for the courts to analyse each case individually and provide various circumstances that would amount to mental cruelty. One such ground of cruelty asserted by the Petitioner which has been interpreted by various High Courts is of the unwillingness/inability of the daughter-in-law/wife to contribution in the household work.

In light of various cases, the article attempts to answer the following two questions, firstly, whether the non-contribution in the household work by wife/daughter-in-law causes mental pain to the other party and secondly, whether the mental pain caused is of such degree that it makes it impossible for him to live together and thus, be covered within the ambit of mental cruelty as a ground for seeking dissolution of marriage.

Gendered view of Marriage

A women’s place in the marriage has been the cause of many matrimonial disputes. What is expected of a wife/daughter-in-law poses a problem in maintaining a healthy marriage. With the passage of time, the norms of society have changed and women no longer belong in the households only. However, certain courts are stuck with the patriarchal beliefs and see certain instances like refusal to wear traditional symbols of marriage or refusal to work in the kitchen as cruelty and so, grounds of divorce. It is submitted that the Hindu Marriage Act is gender neutral and thus, courts based on the gender should not view the refusal to do certain acts as a ground for cruelty.

Article 14 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the right to equality. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the right to live with dignity. This means that there should be equality between the sexes and the spouses must treat each other with respect and dignity. However, these constitutional principles are lost within the matrimonial homes. Further, the courts believed that these rights are the destroyer of the marriage institution and in the privacy of the home and married life, Article 14 and  Article 21 does not have any place.[4] The author is of the view that though the progress of dismantling patriarchy is slow but the courts must make attempts to set examples in the society and be progressive in nature.

Inability or Refusal to do household work not a ground of divorce

With the passage of time, society has developed and so have the courts. Understanding the equal status and the right to have the same lifestyle as her husband, various High Courts when faced with this issue have interpreted it favourably.

In Mukesh Kumar v. Chanchal[5], the husband/Petitioner while seeking a divorce on the ground of cruelty alleged that his wife did not assist in the household work. Though the court dismissed the appeal on lack of evidence but observed that a factor that has to be kept in mind while dealing with such allegations is that the wife was working, and perhaps the expectation of the husband that she would tend to all the household chores as well as continue to work, with equal zest, is unreasonable.

In Girish Gopinath Rallapali v. Kalavati Girish Rallapali[6] the Bombay High Court was faced with the question of whether the inability of the Respondent/wife in discharging her matrimonial duties of cooking food or doing household work properly by itself can be ground to issue a decree of divorce. The Court in agreement with the view taken by the Lower Court held that the inability of the Respondent in discharging her matrimonial duties properly by itself cannot be the ground to straightway grant decree of divorce. It must be established before the court that the Respondent was in a position to properly discharge her matrimonial duties and she was not doing so only to harass the Petitioner. Indubitably, mere inability of the spouse to discharge his/her matrimonial duties will not amount to cruelty to grant decree of divorce in terms of Section 13 (1) (ia) of the Act.

In Deepak v. Kalpana,[7] the Bombay High Court even went on to hold that taunting and harassing wife by uttering words that she is handicapped and that she does not perform the household work properly amounts to harassment and a valid ground by the wife to reside separately from her husband.

The Punjab and Haryana High Court in Rajesh Kumar v. Usha[8], as well dealt with an appeal filed by the husband wherein it was alleged by him that he has been subjected to cruelty by his wife as she was rude to him at the beginning of the marriage and did not know basic cooking due to which he had to leave for work without breakfast. The Hon’ble High Court dismissing the appeal held that the acts and instances of cruelty alleged by the appellant/husband i.e. being overly attached to her parents or not knowing basic cooking or being rude to him, do not by any stretch of imagination reveal any unwarranted and unjustifiable conduct on the part of the respondent-wife so as to constitute cruelty of such magnitude which would have made it impossible for the appellant-husband to continue living with her. The court further held that these allegations at best can be trivial issues between the spouses that do arise in any marriage.

Recently, the Delhi High Court in Vishal Singh v. Priya[9] was faced with a similar situation wherein the husband, Vishal Singh filed an appeal after his petition for divorce under Section 13(1) (i) and (ia) was dismissed by the Trial Court. One of the grounds asserted by the husband as cruelty was that the conduct of the respondent No. 1/wife was cruel towards him as she has been ‘rude’ and of a ‘cruel behaviour’ immediately after the marriage and even kept herself to her room, showing disinclination to do any household work or cook food. The High Court dismissing these allegations held that a new bride is generally hesitant in her new surroundings in the matrimonial home. The duty is cast upon the husband’s family to make the new bride feel at home and accept her as a family member. Therefore, the mere conduct of the respondent No. 1/wife of being interested in remaining in her room or not showing initiative in doing household work can by no stretch of imagination be described as cruel behaviour towards the husband or his family.

Therefore, answering the first question, it is submitted that the refusal/inability to discharge matrimonial duties including performing household work would cause mental pain only when it is done so as to harass the other party. With respect to the second question, it is submitted that even if it is assumed that mental pain was caused due to non-contribution in the household chores, such pain could by no means be of such magnitude so as to constitute cruelty since there is no unjustified conduct on the part of the wife/daughter-in-law that makes it impossible for the husband to live together.

The dissenting view of the Kerala High Court

The Kerala High Court recently in Ranjith P.C. v. Asha Nair P.[10] dealt with an appeal filed by the husband/Petitioner against the Family Court Judgement wherein his decree for dissolution of marriage on the ground of cruelty was declined. One of the grounds asserted by Respondent/wife was that the Petitioner’s mother was cruel to her and made her do all domestic works even during the convalescent period after a surgical operation.

The Hon’ble High Court allowed the appeal for dissolution of marriage mainly on the ground that the contentions of the Respondent clearly disclose her dislike for the mother in law and her desire to maintain a family to her exclusion in light of the decision of the Supreme Court in Vijayakumar Ramachandra Bhate Vs Neela Vijayakumar Bhate[11] wherein it was held that in Hindu society it is a pious obligation of the son to maintain the parents and that the wife must have a justifiable reason to attempt to deviate from the normal practice and custom of society.  The court further went on to hold that “no family is totally devoid of clashes among members constituting it. It is common for elders to scold and sometimes abuse youngsters. Making a daughter in law to do the household/domestic work is also not something unusual.”

Conclusion:

The choice of words in the judgment is of great importance. Not only it provides insight into the thought process of the court, but it also lays down a law that could be used to advantage in another case. Everyone has a right to live with dignity as enriched under Article 21 of the Constitution. Therefore, it is incorrect to state that an individual by virtue of his old age is bestowed with the right to abuse others younger to them in contravention with their right to live with dignity.

We live in a patriarchal society wherein it is common for women to work at home. It is expected from a woman after marriage to contribute to the household chores and even looked down upon wherein one fails to. To expect and to make the doing on an act an obligation has different impacts. This is where the Kerala High Court went wrong. By using the words “Making a daughter in law to do the household/domestic work is also not something unusual”, it made an obligation on the daughter-in-law to contribute in the household work and if not, it could be a ground for seeking dissolution of the marriage on the ground of cruelty.

Contributing in household chores can by no means be a ground of cruelty as one cannot be forced to do something against his/her will. Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees the right to life and liberty and has been interpreted by various High Courts and Supreme Court to include the right to make one’s own life choices. Autonomy is a human right and implies the “freedom to make one’s own choices.” Also, the Preamble and Article 14 of the Indian Constitution both provide for equality in status and opportunity and equality before the law respectively. Furthermore, the Hon’ble Supreme Court in Gurnaib Singh v. State of Punjab[12] observed “a daughter-in-law should be treated as a member of the family with warmth and affection and not as a stranger with respectable and ignoble indifference. She should not be treated as a house maid and no impression should be given to her that she can be thrown out of her matrimonial home at any time.” Thus, making an obligation on the daughter-in-law to do the household work is unjustified and contrary to the Constitutional Principles.

Interestingly, the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 does not provide ‘failure to do household work’ as a ground for seeking a divorce. Though, marriage between individuals brings with it various forms of responsibilities including financial burden, household work, and child raising, however, distributing these duties based on gender alone is damaging and regressive. Just as a woman should not be subjected to household work only, likewise man should not be left alone to bear the financial burden of the family.

[1] Dr. N.G. Dastane vs Mrs. S. Dastane, AIR 1975 SC 1534.

[2] V. Bhagat vs. Mrs. D. Bhagat, AIR 1994 SC 710

[3] Samar Ghosh v. Jaya Ghose, (2007) 4 SCC 511.

[4] Harvinder Kaur vs Harmander Singh Choudhry, AIR 1984 Delhi 66.

[5] Mukesh Kumar v. Chanchal, 133 (2006) DLT 643.

[6] Girish Gopinath Rallapali v. Kalavati Girish Rallapali, Family Court Appeal No. 31 of 2003, Bombay High Court.

[7] Deepak v. Kalpana, II (2018) DMC 615 Bom.

[8] Rajesh Kumar v. Usha, I (2020) DMC 342 P&H.

[9] Vishal Singh v. Priya, 2020 SCC Online Del 638.

[10] Ranjith P.C. v. Asha Nair P., 2020 SCC Online Ker 1751.

[11] Vijayakumar Ramachandra Bhate v. Neela Vijayakumar Bhate, 2003 (6) SCC 334.

[12] Gurnaib Singh v. State of Punjab, (2013) 7 SCC 108.

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